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Days of Duck and Cover
Most of this year’s Yale seniors were 11 in 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall became the Cold War equivalent of VE-Day. Students now come to college with little or no memory of the passions and fears that pervaded postwar American life for more than 40 years. But that hasn’t stopped hundreds of students from beating a path to John Lewis Gaddis’s lecture course, “The Cold War.” Just three years after his arrival at Yale, Gaddis’s course has become the most popular in the College, and he has had to restrict enrollment to 380 students and bar freshmen. By now, nearly a quarter of the College has heard Gaddis’s take on the conflict that dominated international affairs in the latter half of the 20th century.
The students are attracted by the importance of the events, to be sure, but many also cite Gaddis’s compelling teaching style. While his own scholarship focuses on the high-level dealings of superpowers during the Cold War, he makes a point of emphasizing in his course how that clash of nations affected ordinary people on both sides. Gaddis’s approach shows them that behind terms like “brinksmanship,” “containment,” and “mutually assured destruction” are events that shaped the lives of their parents and grandparents.
Gaddis, who came to Yale from Ohio University in 1997, has spent his career writing about those events. He has earned a reputation as the dean of Cold War historians, championing a “post-revisionist” approach that seeks to avoid the political polarization that has long plagued the field. In recent years, Gaddis has been the leading synthesizer of material coming out of archives in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. (His 1997 book We Now Know summarizes what has been learned so far from those sources.) His expertise has been sought by the CIA and the Naval War College, and he has written articles for Time, the Atlantic, and US News and World Report.
But in his time at Yale, Gaddis has been lunching more with undergraduates than with editors and diplomats. “[Department chair] Robin Winks said I would fall in love with the undergraduates, and he was right,” says Gaddis, 58. “Three of the four classes I’m teaching now are in the College. I never thought I’d do so much undergraduate teaching. It’s the opposite of the typical career trajectory.”
Gaddis teaches junior and senior history seminars, but it is his lecture course that has made him a campus celebrity to rival Jonathan Spence or Vincent Scully (or Gaddis Smith, another international historian with whom Gaddis is sometimes confused). Gaddis had taught a course on the Cold War before, but his Yale course has been informed by his experience as one of the three historians who consulted on the making of CNN’s 24-hour documentary series The Cold War, which premiered last fall. Gaddis, along with British historian Lawrence Freedman and Russian Vladislav Zubok, worked with the producers of the $12-million project, which was the brainchild of CNN chair Ted Turner, to ensure an accurate and balanced picture of the events.
What Gaddis took from the experience was an admiration for the filmmakers’ efforts to put a human face on the conflict. When discussing the Marshall Plan, for example, the documentary includes newsreel footage of American mules being sent to Greek farmers. The producers tracked down and interviewed some of the very farmers who received the mules. Similarly, they put ads in German newspapers in an effort to identify filmed images of people trying to cross the Berlin Wall, and then interviewed the subjects. “That’s something a historian wouldn’t have thought of doing,” says Gaddis. “They contributed new ways of seeing.”
Since he came to Yale in 1997, Gaddis has used segments from the documentary to augment his lectures. In a typical 75-minute class in the Art Gallery Lecture Hall, Gaddis will speak for, say, ten minutes, then show a five-minute video clip, then talk some more, moving between lecture and video five or six times. “It’s a very congenial teaching method,” he says. “The students connect with the video material and retain it. If I say Khrushchev or Brezhnev, they have no image coming to mind. A couple of minutes of Khrushchev on video will convey what might take 15 minutes in a lecture.”
Such a manner of teaching seems natural for dealing with a time when televised images of Khrushchev’s famous United Nations tirade or the fighting in Vietnam affected public perception in a way that printed words could not: They are primary sources for the late 20th-century historian. “Of course, one can only do this with a recent topic,” says Gaddis, “and we can only do it thanks to Ted Turner.”
Students who were born too late to learn how to “duck and cover” as schoolchildren in order to avoid the effects of a nuclear strike have come away surprised and sometimes shaken by his narration of East-West conflicts. “After the segment on the Cuban Missile Crisis,” says Gaddis, “people come out of class trembling, because they didn’t know how dangerous it was.”
Students also admire Gaddis for his even-handed and thorough treatment of the conflict. “One of the best things he does is to take an event and say ‘Here’s what happened, here’s what the Americans thought, and here’s what the Americans thought the Russians thought,’” says Benjamin Negin ’00, a chemistry major who took the course last year. “And that’s usually all you get in a history of the Cold War. But he goes on to say ‘and here’s what the Russians really thought.’”
Gaddis is able to give the Russian perspective because of a program (which he helped devise) called the Cold War International History Project, which collects newly available documents from the former East Bloc, translates them, and provides a kind of provisional analysis for historians. While Gaddis does not speak the languages fluently enough to examine the documents himself, he has followed the revelations in the documents closely. “He was the first to attempt to synthesize what had been discovered in the archives with other materials,” says William Taubman, a political science professor at Amherst. “He sits down in We Now Know and puts it all together. I don’t think anybody else does it the way he does.”
Like most Americans, Gaddis grew up unable to imagine a world without a Soviet Union—or a Cold War. He was born in Cotulla, Texas, in 1941, only a few years before the beginning of the conflict to which he has devoted his career. The first steps in his higher education were shaped by that conflict, and the flight of the first Russian satellite. “Like a lot of people, I was being routed into math and science, because of Sputnik,” he recalls. “I went to Rice, but I soon decided math and science were beyond me, so I decided to be a librarian.” Gaddis transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where, because he couldn’t actually major in library science, he majored in history. “I got into history out of desperation, and a feeling that I was not good at anything else,” he remembers. “So I’m always sympathetic to undergraduates who don’t yet know what they want to do.”
When a professor suggested that one of his papers was good enough for publication, he was inspired to continue in history at the graduate level, also at Texas. He began graduate school in 1963, when the earliest American Cold War documents were just becoming available to scholars. “I wanted to work on a big subject that was exciting and with new doors opening up all along the way,” he says. “What I never expected was that years later, the Soviet documents would become available. It was not until the mid-1980s that we began to think this could happen.”
Gaddis earned his PhD in 1968 and a year later won an appointment to the faculty at Ohio University in Athens. In 1972, his doctoral dissertation, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941–1947, was published to wide acclaim. (Among the pre-publication readers was Gaddis Smith, who says he recommended it enthusiastically.) “His first book won two or three prizes,” says Paul Kennedy, Gaddis’s history department colleague and closest friend at Yale. “It was an instant success in a way that any PhD might dream about.”
Over the next 25 years, Gaddis went on to write five more books and to enjoy a growing reputation as a dogged historian who favors documentation over speculation. “US foreign policy history has been bedeviled by the ideological war between Western apologists and revisionists,” explains Kennedy. “In the early stages of Cold War history, you had an orthodox pro-Western view, then, beginning in the 1960s, there was a revisionist theory that blamed the Cold War chiefly on the US. John came along and really redesigned the field by producing book after book of document-based history that has come to be called 'post-revisionist,' with more understanding and empathy for the position of the West.”
One of the most hotly contested issues between the orthodox and revisionist camps is who bears the greater responsibility for the Cold War.While the post-revisionists have argued essentially for shared responsibility, Gaddis maintains that given Josef Stalin’s character and the power he had in the Soviet Union, there is little the US could have done to avoid the conflict. This view, he says, has been bolstered by what has come out of the Soviet archives.
“The net effect [of the material in the archives] has been to push us back toward a more traditional interpretation of the Cold War, rather than that of the New Left in the 1960s and 70s,” says Gaddis.
That point of view has not sat well with the reigning revisionists. “John is disliked by the left,” says Gaddis Smith. “He’s not a man of the right in the sense of being an ideologue, but what has distinguished him is his effort to look at the Cold War without buying into the idea that the United States is guilty.”
Michael Hogan, a history professor at Ohio State University, is among those who disagree with Gaddis, although he stresses his respect and admiration for Gaddis’s work. “Stalin was a vicious tyrant, but we had a long record of dealing with him during World War II,” says Hogan. “[US ambassador to Russia Averill] Harriman and others seemed to feel you could deal with Stalin. He understood that there were limits to his power.”
The dispute over responsibility, wrapped up as it is with political philosophy and interpretation of events, may never be settled, even when all the Cold War documents become available. But one of the most important things to come out of the new material, says Gaddis, is an understanding of the importance ideology played for Soviet leaders. This runs counter to diplomatic historians’ traditional assumption that ideology takes a back seat to realpolitik in international conflicts."As recently as ten years ago, I would have said that the ideology was window dressing,” says Gaddis. But the record shows that even Stalin took steps—sometimes missteps—because of a genuine belief in Communist ideals.
“Lenin taught that capitalist states could not sustain an alliance because they would by nature end up in competition,” says Gaddis. “So as late as 1952, Stalin is still expecting the Americans and the Brits to fall out with each other. That’s an example of why I have called Stalin a romantic, in the sense that he was the opposite of a realist.”
The archives have also yielded frightening information about a previously unknown nuclear close call, one that Gaddis says was as dangerous as any besides the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the fall of 1983, a series of NATO war games known as the Able-Archer exercises alarmed the Russians to the extent that they became convinced that the United States was about to launch a preemptive first strike against the Warsaw Pact. It was only through a highly placed Western spy in Soviet intelligence that word got back to the West of this concern, and President Ronald Reagan immediately altered the tone of his own rhetoric in order to reassure the Russians. “Able-Archer revealed how out of touch the Soviet leadership was with American intentions,” says Gaddis. “They actually believed we were on the verge of a first strike.”
In addition to his wide-angle, synthetic views of the Cold War, Gaddis has also had a more narrowly focused project in the works for the past 13 years: an authorized biography of George Kennan, the longtime State Department official and Princeton history professor whose famous “long cable” of 1946 on “containing” Communism became the blueprint for America’s Cold War foreign policy. The 95-year-old Kennan has given Gaddis complete access to his papers—and the freedom to write what he thinks—with the condition that the book be published only after his death. “Whenever I see him, he apologizes for delaying the project,” jokes Gaddis.
With such a project entrusted to him, it is clear that Gaddis’s career was not hampered by being at a respected but less-than-famous university for 25 years. Gaddis was happy at Ohio, where he had founded the Contemporary History Institute in 1987, and had turned away an offer from Princeton and inquiries from Harvard, Stanford, and others. But three years ago, Winks and Kennedy managed to lure him away to fill the Robert Lovett Professorship, an endowed chair in strategic and military history that had earlier been held by the military historians Sir Michael Howard and Geoffrey Parker.
The move would be a fresh start for Gaddis, who had recently been divorced. (He has two adult sons.) He at first thought he'd be coming alone, but just after Christmas that year, he had dinner with Toni Dorfman, who ran the School of Theater at Ohio. The two had known each other slightly as faculty colleagues before, but now, as Dorfman remembers, “He knew he was going to Yale, and both our marriages were over.” Two weeks later, on their fourth date, he made a gentle inquiry. “I said, ‘Would you consider leaving tenure and the directorship of the School of Theater to go to a place you don’t know with a guy you don’t know,’” remembers Gaddis. “And she said yes.” They were married in November 1997.
Dorfman, who is 54 and has an adult daughter, took a job at Yale as a lecturer in the theater studies department, an arrangement that suits her desire to continue her career as a playwright and freelance director. She teaches acting and directing, and is directing two productions at Yale this term. Together, the couple have become active citizens of Yale, with a steady stream of both history and theater students in and out of their house on Bishop Street. Gaddis once enlisted students in his seminar as audience members for a production staged by one of Dorfman’s classes, and the two have long thought of ways to explore the connection between theater and history.
While Gaddis’s scholarship has focused almost exclusively on the Cold War, his offerings as a teacher are more catholic. He has taught a seminar on the art of biography, another on methodology in history, and is now embarking on a year-long University-wide seminar on “grand strategy,” a discipline with military roots that he defines as “how to organize means in the pursuit of large ends.” Gaddis is teaching the class, which includes 24 students from the College, the Graduate School, the Law School, and the School of Management, in partnership with Paul Kennedy, management professor Paul Bracken, and visiting lecturer Charles Hill. The goal, Gaddis says, is to teach strategy to “future leaders, people who will be running important entities, if not countries. I don’t see any other university doing that. And part of the problem now in Washington, D.C., is there is no sense of grand strategy.”
Most students who have taken Gaddis’s small classes say he is as good in a seminar room as he is in a lecture hall. “He wanted to know what conclusions we drew,” says Daniel Serviansky ’00, who took Gaddis’s seminar on methodology last semester. “He was always very reticent about giving his own opinions, especially while anyone in the class was still forming their own opinions about an event.”
Even where his large lecture course is concerned, Gaddis has made an unusual effort to get to know his students. Last term, he announced to the Cold War class that he was initiating a “take a professor to lunch program”: Students were encouraged to band together in groups of five or six and make lunch dates with him in the dining hall. “It was a way for me to get feedback,” he says. “I was originally going to do it once a week, but soon I had every free day taken up with lunch. I would guess I probably lunched with a third of the class.”
Gaddis acknowledges that his involvement with his students leaves little time for the research and writing that made him famous, but it doesn’t bother him much. “I’ve been there, done that,” he says about his scholarly work. “I’ve written six books. If this slows me down writing more, that’s okay.”
After all, publishing and appearing on television have their rewards, but young minds can sometimes offer bigger surprises. While Gaddis has been impressed with the intelligence and seriousness of his students, he says he’s also repeatedly been asked about the fate of one forgotten Cold War casualty. “I spent two minutes in class on Laika, the dog that was sent up in the second Sputnik,” says Gaddis. “But the fate of Laika—the fact that she was left to die in orbit—seems to haunt them.”
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